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Dr. Christina Johns
Senior Medical Advisor, PM Pediatrics

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Early Intervention in the Fight For Mental Health Among Our Youth

From anxiety to depression, mental health needs for children and young adults in the USA have been increasing even before SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) showed up, but the pandemic has really shone a spotlight on the urgency of establishing access to pediatric mental health services. Notable statistics released over the last few months indicate that many teens and young adults are strongly considering and even attempting suicide. Survey results from the CDC published in early April 2022 revealed that 1 in 5 high school students in the U.S. seriously considered suicide, and about 1 in 10 students had attempted suicide.* 

Results of a government study released in mid-2021 showed mental health-related emergency department visits among teenagers in 2020 increased by 31% compared to the previous year and furthermore, emergency visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12 to 17 increased by 26% during the summer of 2020 and by 50% during winter 2021, compared with the same periods in 2019.**

As a pediatric emergency physician, I feel very strongly that it is my duty and the duty of us all in the pediatric community to speak up and advocate for both the physical and mental health of our children. Prevention of disease is always better than treatment. As parents, relatives, teachers, and friends of teens in distress, we need to provide help and support before the situation requires acute urgent care by talking to our children about mental health early and often. 

Know The Signs

Changes in eating or sleeping patterns 

Disruptions to eating or sleeping habits can be overlooked as kids simply “going through a phase”, but pay attention to these changes. If you notice your child is consistently having trouble waking up in the morning, and they never used to, and they always seem exhausted and don’t want to get out of bed, it could be a sign of depression amongst other things. Another indicator is a change in eating habits. For example, a consistent, noticeable loss of appetite or disinterest in eating that did not exist before might be a signal of mood disorder.

Loss of interest in activities

A child who is suddenly uninterested in anything – activities they used to enjoy, friends they hung out with all the time – could be an indication they are emotionally struggling. A drop in academic performance might be a clue as well.

Sharp changes in mood

A generally content and happy child has sudden, sharp shifts in mood with intense agitation that seems to come out of nowhere – this could be caused by thoughts of depression, stress, or anxiety. 

 

Your Pediatrician Can Be Your First Line of Defense 

If you’re unsure of who to talk to or where to start to try to find the right resource for a child you suspect needs help, your pediatrician can serve as your first line of support. If you’ve had the same family doctor since your child was young, this person knows your child having watched them grow through various stages of development. They can be very helpful in assisting you in decoding potentially concerning behaviors and finding the right resources for you and your family. Coaches, school counselors, and religious leaders can also help guide you towards the right mental health professional. Remember that therapy sessions don’t have to occur exclusively in person; there are many options for teletherapy and virtual visits that can be scheduled on weekends and after hours, from the comfort and convenience of your own home.

 

Normalize The Healthy Expression of Feelings 

In addition to looking out for the signs and consulting your pediatrician with any concerns right away, I highly recommend talking to your child/children early and often about their feelings, creating a safe space that urges them to be open and honest with you. Start praising kids when they openly talk about their feelings with you, even if it’s not in a crisis situation. Saying things like, “I’m so glad you shared that,” helps build the foundation for openness and normalizes the conversation around vocalizing what they are feeling, whether good or bad. Get into the habit of scripting a conversation with kids that empowers them to express both their happy and not-so-happy emotions. An example might be, “what’s one thing that made you sad today and one thing that made you glad?” This sets the tone for a mindset of being able to openly talk about something instead of impulsively acting on it. 

The mental health situation in our country is urgent, so let’s arm parents, teachers, and caregivers with the necessary tools to address the problem head-on to encourage early intervention. 

 

*Source: CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, April 1, 2022

**Source: CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 11, 2021

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